Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Spousal Abuse Definition:

The physical or emotional abuse of a spouse.

Related Terms: Battered Woman Syndrome, Battering Cycle, Domestic Violence

"Spousal abuse is one of the greatest tragedies in our society."1

Also known as domestic violence.

The 2010 California Penal Code, at §273.5(a) defines spousal abuse as follows:

"Any person who willfully inflicts upon a person who is his or her spouse, former spouse, cohabitant, former cohabitant, or the mother or father of his or her child, corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition, is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for two, three, or four years, or in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of up to six thousand dollars ($6,000) or by both that fine and imprisonment....

"[T]raumatic condition means a condition of the body, such as a wound or external or internal injury, whether of a minor or serious nature, caused by a physical force."

In R v Lavalée, Justice Wilson wrote:

"Laws do not spring out of a social vacuum.  The notion that a man has a right to discipline his wife is deeply rooted in the history of our society.  The woman's duty was to serve her husband and to stay in the marriage at all costs 'til death do us part and to accept as her due any punishment that was meted out for failing to please her husband.  One consequence of this attitude was that "wife battering" was rarely spoken of, rarely reported, rarely prosecuted, and even more rarely punished.  Long after society abandoned its formal approval of spousal abuse tolerance of it continued and continues in some circles to this day.

"Fortunately, there has been a growing awareness in recent years that no man has a right to abuse any woman under any circumstances.  Legislative initiatives designed to educate police, judicial officers and the public, as well as more aggressive investigation and charging policies all signal a concerted effort by the criminal justice system to take spousal abuse seriously."

In the 1996 research paper entitled Achieving Equal Justice for Women and Men in the California Courts, the authors noted:

"Some judges do not treat domestic violence as a crime even when the level of violence is severe. Spousal abuse is seen rather as a subject for counseling and diversion, a family squabble into which the court should not intrude."

In Re Sylvia, Justice Wills of the Court of Appeals of California adopted these words as regards to the sequelae upon children who live within a home infected by spousal abuse:

"Both common sense and expert opinion ... indicate spousal abuse is detrimental to children....

"[S]pouse battering is secondary abuse which may sow in children the seeds of psychological predisposition to be victims of domestic violence.... Studies show that violence by one parent against another harms children even if they do not witness it.

"First, children of these relationships appear more likely to experience physical harm from both parents than children of relationships without woman abuse. Second, even if they are not physically harmed, children suffer enormously from simply witnessing the violence between their parents.... Third, children of abusive fathers are likely to be physically abused themselves."


  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Battered Woman Syndrome
  • In re Sylvia, 55 Cal. App. (4th) 559 (1997)
  • Judicial Council of California Advisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts, Achieving Equal Justice for Women and Men in the California Courts, July 1996 (editors: Gay Danforth and Bobbie Welling)
  • Lewelling v Lewelling, 796 SW 2d 164 (Justice Doggett, Supreme Court of Texas, 1990)
  • R v Lavalée, [1990] 1 S.C.R. 852

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